bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

History in Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 September, 2016

Today deserves a little fanfare: the latest instalment of Lost Manuscripts has been made available this morning. There are only 32 new fragments, coming from 19 host volumes, so not a full drum-roll and brass band, please — but some piano trumpetting will not go amiss.

This is the third batch drawn from the collection of Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), a Colchester boy who rose to be Archbishop of York. We must be grateful that he left his library to his hometown, and perhaps equally grateful that the authorities did not look after his books too well: that is, they refrained from hyperactive campaigns of ‘restoration’ and so most of the books are in their early modern bindings, with some usually sensitive repair work done in the 1970s. With those early bindings often come flyleaves and pastedowns from manuscripts. The procedure on the Lost Manuscripts’ website has been the same as before: to give brief descriptions of the bindings, to catalogue the fragments and also, where possible, to bring together separate fragments from the same manuscript and to record that. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the imaginary location where those physically divorced fragments share an existence as a partially reconstructed manuscript is the city of Babel. The Babel numbers now run up to forty, with twelve new inhabitants appearing today. They include some elegant arrivals — my personal favourite is a full leaf from a fine copy of Moerbeke’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — but others, it must be admitted, turn up looking rather shabbier.

The intention of this project has never been simply to make freely available, in virtual format, information and images of these books, though that is a benefit in itself: if the result of the website is that someone appreciates more fully what can be found in an early modern book, then it has done a service. My aspiration, however, is that over time we can ask much larger historical questions about the death of manuscript culture. We are far away from being able to do that, but I do have a couple of tentative comments which I think deserve investigating further.

1. The long life of tearing up manuscripts

It is already known that, while the heyday of book destruction was the Reformation period, it began long before that and did not end in the mid-sixteenth century. The Harsnett collection itself has examples of this and it goes back much further: it was an element inherent in manuscript culture, new codices sometimes cannibalising older ones, not just through the re-use of parchment, creating palimpsests, but also through the recycling of discarded pages in bindings. The sixteenth century inherited this practice, which was certainly most widespread in the first three quarters of the century. It did, though, continue and not just in Oxford (as is sometimes said). The material used did, in some cases, change, with an increase in recent paper waste, including booksellers’ accounts, being taken out of the rubbish (or the privy) and employed to serve the purpose that parchment manuscript leaves had previously provided. There are, however, other occasions, at the very end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, when medieval codices were available and were deployed in bindings. In some cases, these were from what must have been quite impressive volumes, being used in known a book-collector’s library: the books of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) provide notable evidence of this from his time as archbishop of Canterbury (1604 until his death); I will discuss this in more detail another day. Perhaps the manuscripts involved were already too damaged to consider preserving them, but it remains striking that, in this generation of the early antiquaries, destruction could be thought an appropriate process.

2. Not one process but many

What also has intrigued me from the findings we have made so far is the variety of practice. It is obvious that there are differences in use which define the types of fragment that survive: some binders included pastedowns, others had large strips as flyleaves, yet others small reinforcing pieces. There were differences as well in the quality of manuscript, and the parts of it they would employ. In some cases, this must have been governed by issues of availability, a dynamic that must lie behind the increasing use of recent documentary material which I have just mentioned. That, though, would not explain, for instance, the habits of some binders who cut up the manuscript and kept only those pieces with no or minimal text. As some clearly did this consciously, it raises questions about others’ practices: did the provision of an elegant leaf as a pastedown, replete with text and sometimes illumination, say something about the interests or even the loyalties of the binder or of their client? There is a basic opposition in the practices between those which were intended to hide the origin of the material used and those that celebrated it, but even here these describe two extremes of a range of practices. Our intention here must be to get into the mind of the binder when they had the manuscript before them and set about re-using it: we want to recover the impulses that moved their hand as the knife came down upon the parchment.

There are, of course, further issues raised by the increasing amount of evidence that is being gathered, and any comments at this stage must be provisional. But at least we are beginning to know what questions we can ask – and I am confident they will be thought-provoking questions.

More Lost Manuscripts

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 December, 2015

In between the various commitments of a teaching term, I have been working on the release of a second batch of entries for the Lost Manuscripts project – and today is the day they are launched upon the world.

As you may remember, the pilot project involves cataloguing and digitizing the manuscript fragments found in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now resident in the library of the University of Essex.The rationale has been to treat each fragment both as an object worth describing in its own right and as witness to a manuscript which once existed but is now lost to us. In doing this, then, it engages with the developing and exciting practices of ‘virtual reunification’ – the process of bringing together on the internet elements of a work of art which are physically dispersed. Its manuscript variant is sometimes called ‘fragmentology’, an undeniably unlovely term (but I have complained about that before now). What the project hopes to bring to the metaphorical table, beyond a set of new examples, is thinking about the standards of cataloguing we might require for fragments and how they may differ from those for complete codices.

The intention of the Lost Manuscripts site is to make the images and the descriptions freely available. The bulk of the work for the pilot project was done in the summer of this now-closing year, but the pages are being released in small batches to allow for checking and the addition of further information. So, today is one step on a journey, and a small one at that. In the first batch, there were twenty ‘lost manuscripts’; in this, only eight. That is partly because this group includes several fragments which do not meet the rules we have set for creating a lost manuscript: if only one remnant remains from which it is impossible to extrapolate what might have been, then it is not allowed into that virtual realm of reborn codices we like to call Babel. So, a stray strip of music, or a single scrap of a copy of the Digest stands beyond that city’s gates. Of course, in those instances, our hope is that more work and more discoveries will allow us to link up that lone fragment with others – and then the doors will be opened to them.

All the same, there are some interesting finds in the fragments now there to view. Some of these are discussed on the Highlights page of the site. They include an example I have mentioned before of how some binders chose to save not the text from a manuscript but precisely those parts which provided virgin parchment. There is also a useful reminder that, while the process of dismantling manuscripts is, in English history, particularly associated with the disruption of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the reformers by no means invented the practice. The fragments involved in that case are a personal favourite at the moment because several come from one medical manuscript for which we have been able to identify precisely from what text they come: it is painstaking and, indeed, thankless work which, in this instance, involved learning more about the varieties of urine than any layperson could ever really want to know.

As the project develops, what is also coming into sharper focus is the range of questions we should be (funding permitting) asking at the next stage. We can detect a variety of practices that took place in different binderies – what were the reasons for those differences and how did they develop from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century? We also know that a broad sweep of medieval texts were ripe for cutting up, but did the variety of manuscripts and the balance between them shift over the sixteenth century? What, fundamentally, was the logic of the destruction of manuscript culture in the early modern period? These are big issues which will need ‘big data’ to begin to answer them – but they are ones that are surely worth asking.

Has the Age of Fragmentology arrived?

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 26 July, 2015

Fragmentology is a horrible word. It sounds like a shady cult (as in, ‘the fragmentologists gathered under the cover of darkness’). It suggests a pseudo-science (palaeographers donning lab coats and goggles to place a parchment shard on a petri dish). It breaks the grammatical rule not to form a word as a hybrid of Latin and Greek (but that did little to stop the march of the television). What is more, according to the OED, it does not yet exist – but it most certainly has been coined. Most recently it has been used in an on-line piece by Lisa Fagin Davis, discussing the state of fragment studies in the United States. And, reflecting on her stimulating post, and surveying what research is happening, I suspect that, however barbarous or cacaphonic it might sound, it is a term whose time has come and, like God in Voltaire’s aphorism, if it did not exist, we would have to invent it.

The studies of manuscript fragments is certainly du jour; my own little project – on which more in the coming days – lives alongside over a dozen other initiatives already on-going world-wide, with more in the offing. A useful overview of several of these is provided by a presentation made by Kaspar Kolk at the beginning of this year (it is freely available to download, and I thank Jürgen Beyer for bringing it to my attention); his list does not claim to be comprehensive and I intend to upload a set of links soon to which I hope others will add so that we can survey the panorama of research that is developing before our eyes.

We might wonder why there should be such a flourishing now. An obvious reason is technological: the opportunities provided by digitisation positively invite the uploading of fragments – particularly individual leaves, as in the example on which Lisa Fagin Davis concentrates in her post. The activity speaks to the wider museum fashion for ‘virtual reunification’ (a phrase which sounds a little too mid-1989 for my liking: an undercurrent of this post, I realise, is the worry that, though the innovations are exciting, they are not best served by the vocabulary being imposed on them). That wider agenda has its own logic which is part curatorial and part political: the digitisation of the fragmentary can have a conservation value, while the process of reuniting disparate elements does not only showcase what can be done on-line, it can also help tackle some – but by no means all – of the concerns of displaced ‘national’ patrimony. At the same time, we might wonder whether there is another, more emotional element which makes such projects attractive to funders and to the public: a romanticism about the incomplete, an element of ruin lust.

Romanticism has its attractions but it can also have its detractors. If we are seen to wallow in the fragmentary, it can raise a legitimate concern. There are, rightly, questions about what gain there is to scholarship in identifying and virtually reuniting elements from a codex which does not have any special philological or artistic significance. Lisa Fagin Davis puts it nicely:

Does the world really NEED another mediocre mid-fifteenth-century Book of Hours from Rouen? What do we gain from piecing Humpty Dumpty together again?

If the study of fragments could re-make Humpty Dumpty – and no more – the result might be little better than a curate’s egg. It is my conviction, though, that we can and should enunciate a stronger rationale for working with membra disiecta and that is precisely what fragmentology can usefully be: not the study of fragments itself but, if you will, its meta-discourse, developing the intellectual justification and scholarly standards which underpin that research.

I appreciate that I myself might sound like Humpty as he appears in Lewis Carroll, insisting that the word ‘means what I choose it to mean – nothing more or less’. I am sure the term will develop a range of nuances; I vaguely hope that it will be superseded by a phrase with more euphony. What matters, though, is not what we call it but that we recognise our responsibility to articulate the benefits of fragement studies. I have already started to attempt that in an earlier post; let me now provide more succinct expression:

Manuscript fragments survive, thousands upon thousands, but they have tended to be overlooked by scholarship which has, understandably, found richer pickings in the extant intact codices. There are notable exceptions to this but it is undeniable that there are legions of fragments that are uncatalogued and unidentified. Most of those are in public collections – often half-forgotten, sitting in other books’ bindings or kept in insubstantial folders or envelopes – but not all are; a proportion (we simply cannot say at the moment how significant) are in private hands. Their status makes them vulnerable: so easily overlooked, they are thus also liable to suffer further damage. If we add to this the truth that the dismantling of manuscripts is by no means over but, rather, is a continuing practice in parts of the rare book market, then it should be clear that there is a cluster of ethical and heritage imperatives to argue that making publicly available fragments by cataloguing and up-loading them is of intrinsic value.

This, though, still does not reach the core of what I see as their fundamental significance: they have the potential to transform our understanding of manuscript culture. We tend to write the history of that culture – certainly for its later centuries, by which I mean post-1100 and perhaps post-800 – by a concentration on those codices that have endured complete. The implicit assumption tends to be that what survives reflects what was produced, even though the evidence of book-lists sometimes suggest that the range and balance of books did not line up in the aumbry quite as they do on present-day shelves. The challenge is to test how representative what we have is against what is lost, and for that the key under-utilised resource are those manuscripts which live between the fully living and the utterly lost, the undead fragments.

What is more, the future of these studies lies not just in identifying and making available these remnants but also in creating a fuller understanding of the processes of fragmentation. As I have just mentioned, this is a history which is not at its end: that reality should encourage us not to be complacent but, at the same time, we can be confident that the early twenty-first century is not a high-point for dismembering of manuscripts. We can already identify those moments in the past when the habit was more prevalent but large-scale study of fragments should allow us to create a more naunced narrative and analysis of the process and its logic. The history of the book is not just about volumes’ lives but also about their demise.

There are a couple of implications of what I have just said with which I want to conclude. First, it should be apparent that to unleash the full potential which I have briefly outlined will require the collecting of ‘big data’ – so big that no one project can hope to achieve it all alone. This is what makes the plethora of initiatives occurring now so welcome. Of course, we would want some shared understanding of what is required from a digital catalogue; personally, I would be inclined to urge us to develop agreed minimum standards, rather a template so strict and detailed that it is unlikely all will abide by it. At the same time – and this is the second implication – if what I have suggested does provide an intellectual rationale (a fragmentology) for our practices, then it does have ramifications for how we would want to catalogue the evidence we have. As I have said elsewhere, the requirements for cataloguing fragments are subtly different from those for complete manuscripts and we should consider the principles involved. On that, more another time.

Into the fragmentary

Posted in Digital History, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 17 May, 2015

Let me entice you into the half-light, into the region inhabited by manuscripts which are no longer fully alive but which have not disappeared entirely – the world of undead books. I have become convinced that working here could have the power to be transformative of our understanding of manuscript culture. I want to encourage you to travel with me on this adventure.

All of us who work with manuscripts – or, indeed, with the earliest printed books – are conscious that we deal with only the minority that survives and can only dream of what once might have been. Early on in our researches, we come across those shards of evidence that exist between the two states, often collected in guardbooks or in boxes, though sometimes loose or hidden within other books –  fragments. I first engaged with them when working on my doctorate and I could not resist their lure. On the emotional level, there is something tantalising about this evidence of what we have lost; on an intellectual level, it is hard not to relish the challenge of identification.

Perhaps the fascination of them is why I have allowed myself to be seduced back into studying them time and again. When, in 2003, I became an Editor for Oxford Bibliographical Society, my first task was to oversee the reprint of Neil Ker’s classic Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, first published in 1954 and the classic study of a corpus of fragments whose place of dismemberment is localisable, since, in sixteenth-century Oxford, binders (more often, it is said, than anywhere else) strengthened and prettified the bindings they put on books by gluing a section from a discarded manuscript to each of the book’s boards. The reprint was not simply a reproduction. It involved providing some light updating, based on Ker’s own notes, those of another hero of Oxford manuscript studies, Richard Hunt, and the work of David Pearson, who had already supplemented Ker’s work in his own Oxford Book-binding 1500-1640 (Oxford, 2000). It resulted in the thirty-page addenda and corrigenda, work which made me conscious of how much more could be done with these broken survivors of an era of destruction.

Even at that point just over a decade ago, the potential of an on-line database of fragments was already imaginable. (Indeed, a review of Codicologica from 1983 threw out the suggestion of a ‘computerized information bank’). In the years since working on Ker, I have mused with friends and colleagues about the opportunities there might be for doing just that. Now, thanks to the University of Essex, ‘seed-corn funding’ has been made available for a pilot project which, in the coming months, will see created a digital catalogue, with images, of a particular set of fragments, in situ as strips, flyleaves and pastedowns in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), Archbishop of York and son of Colchester, who left his library to the town; those books are now in the safe keeping of the University of Essex. The intention, after this pilot, is to move on and to build up a larger database of fragments in the British Isles. How that will be done is not what I intend to discuss here. Instead, I want to consider the intellectual requirements and possibilities of such an undertaking.

Of course, the digitising of fragments now has a plethora of precedents. Juergen Berger has helpfully pointed that a listing of some of these has recently been provided by Kaspar Kolk, who is himself working on manuscript fragments in his native Estonia. His survey suggests the range of endeavours occurring across Europe and in North America. The El Dorado for many of these ventures is the aspiration of bringing together elements from one manuscript which are now dispersed. How attractive this possibility can be is suggested by the interim result for a small poll related to my own project: I invited viewers to help name the enterprise and, to date, the preference is for my jocular suggestion of Fragments Reunited (that will teach me to try a joke).

To achieve any reconstruction, however, requires some painstaking research and the scholar needs all the help both the Internet and hard-copy sources can provide. The ability to identify a text is unimaginably greater – I mean simpler and quicker – than in the mid-twentieth century when Neil Ker was at work. But so many fragments are little more than scraps and thus defy identification by text alone. And when the words are susceptible to being pinned down to a particular work, there remains the issue for every piece of parchment – even if it represents the most uncommon text – of ascertaining whether it does come from the same codex as any other fragment of the same composition.

I say this not to arouse your sympathy for the hard-pressed archival archaeologist but, instead, to raise an issue of how we catalogue fragments. One of the most important websites being built at present is the Inventory of Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Norway. They have done sterling dectetive work in organising extant sections of leaves by their original manuscripts. In doing this, they have used the rules for cataloguing developed by J. P. Gumbert. His guidance provides the noble principle that each fragment is a manuscript in its own right, worthy of being given the same treatment as a full survival. At the same time, another guiding principle of his inventory approach is the need to work at speed, with each entry being as pared down as possible. If, though, we are going to maximise our chances of making accurate identifications, I would urge that we need to include details which are not always necessary for a description of a complete manuscript, while also ensuring other data are fully searchable. So, it is not usual to measure the space between lines in a conventional description (though this can be deduced by dividing the height of the written space by the number of lines) nor the height of minims but, as a cutting is likely not to provide the full text block, these have the potential to be important diagnostics. Similarly, if the cutting is from the centre of a bicolumnar folio, we will not know the dimensions of the columns but we can measure the width of the central reservation, which might well help us make an identification. This last is a datum that should always appear in a description but if, in a database it is recorded only as one part of the dimensions, its ability to act as a comparator is all but lost. In other words, if it is going to be fully searchable, the information recorded needs to be broken down to a level of detail not usually considered necessary. My own experience is that entering these data does not slow down the process of cataloguing by more than a few seconds – and can reduce substantially the time needed later for compiling the incomplete jigsaw that are the related fragments.

It will already be clear that I am not certain that we have fully realised what we need if we are to make the most from fragments. That is likely to be because we have not yet appreciated the entirety of their potential. To give these battered remnants the attention they deserve, we needs must adopt the mantra that a fragment is a manuscript but, in an obvious and fundamental way, that is untrue and, on my submission, can even undermine our recognition of each scrap’s significance. A fragment is not an island entire of itself, nor is a cluster of them simply an archipelago. Or, rather, if it is, we are like marine geologists looking for the submerged mass which connects the elements together. That is to say, each fragment (however tiny) is a witness to a whole manuscript and should be taken as an invitation to envisage how that codex would have looked. Faced with an insignificant and scruffy survival, it may seem hubristic to think we can move from that to conceptualising the pristine object, but, if we use all the information available, and work both by extrapolation and analogy, it is not impossible to glimpse, at the very least, the original codex. This is why I would urge that, when we record fragments, we should in effect provide a double catalogue, once as the individual piece, respecting its present condition and location, and once as a testimony to a recovered manuscript – the section that, in the database I am developing, will be called ‘Babel’.

You might ask whether it is worth the effort spending the extra time on that process of reconstruction. If the potential stopped with the completion of the catalogue entry, perhaps – in many but not all instances – it would not be. That is not, though, where our work should end, for the greatest gains are to be had by analyzing the gathered weight of data that a sustained project can provide. If we continue for the moment thinking about the fragment as witness to the lost manuscript, a question that will press itself on us is how the volume came to be dismantled and half-discarded. We may think we know the answer: we can explain that, in various societies, there have been moments of destruction in their history, and we might cite as an example England in the mid-sixteenth century. That, though, is not precise enough: we should ask ourselves what we can learn about the details of the individual journey each single manuscript took from wholeness to dismemberment. If a fragment sits in a binding, we can often tell in what book-shop it must have been torn apart and we might then ask how it could have reached this bookseller (who so loved books that he broke up old ones to strengthen the new). Were all books used, for instance, in Oxford bindings in the sixteenth century pulled from local resources? We cannot know that – yet. Our goal, I am suggesting, is that we should see an endpoint of working with fragments to be about gaining a sharper understanding of the processes and levels of loss that have occurred. This matters because, as we all know, the surviving complete manuscripts that we have are a minority of those that were produced in medieval Christendom. We are faintly aware that what survives is probably unusual; what we surely need to do is to have a stronger sense of how unrepresentative the extant full codices are of the manuscript culture that existed. The study of fragments invites us to move beyond the comfort of what we have and to develop a history that more fully recognises what we have lost.